Christians in Scotland are up against it. I’d be lying if I said that making Jesus known around the country, or even in Ayr, where my church is based, is without challenges.

From a national perspective, secularisation is rapidly sweeping across society and more and more people identify with non-religious values and institutions. Add to this, the church in Scotland, and the rest of the UK for that matter, tends to be defined by what it prohibits rather than the love it carries for all creation. And the stories in the media don’t help; they often have an anti-church narrative which filters through to people’s psyche. Is it any wonder, then, that if we were to ask a random sample of people what they thought about Christians and church, we’d likely get a negative response?

Yet, the challenges are not within wider society alone. They’re within the church in Scotland too. Many long-established Christians, people who have been going to church for a number of years, have a Christendom mindset’, often looking back with rose-tinted specs to the way things were. People talk about and bemoan the loss of a Bible-loving Scotland – a time that has now gone. Additionally, with an increasing focus on apologetics, a lot of individual Christians mistakenly think that they cannot share their story, their testimony, because they haven’t got all the arguments to defend their beliefs against the critics. We would do well to face up to all of these challenges, plus the many that I haven’t mentioned, and discover new ways of connecting with and being a blessing to the people around us. 

As the pastor of Riverside Evangelical Church, I know that God has called me to the community of Ayr to build up the congregation so that we can minister the good news of salvation in Jesus to the locals, in word and deed. God made this impression on my heart long ago. So, even as a teen, when I became a Christian, I always sensed that God would lead me into some sort of full-time Christian ministry. I served as a school teacher for 13 years, teaching English, and even then, I quite quickly got into what we call guidance and pupil support and worked with youngsters who were going through difficulties.

"The challenges are not within wider society alone. They’re within the church in Scotland too."

Kingdom expansion’ work is already underway at Riverside. I joined the church as associate pastor in 2005 and became the pastor in 2014 when my predecessor retired after almost two decades service. In 2008 we set up Care & Share, which has evolved from a drop-in centre for homeless people into a multifaceted support service for those who are confronted with a range of crises. Partnering with the council and other agencies, we now off er weekly meals and access to a range of professional services including housing support, benefit advice, credit union, community addiction nurses, furniture recycling, counselling, and more.

Through this initiative and other endeavours, we have developed a robust relationship with the local community. So, while people might have a generally negative perception of church and Christians, as I mentioned before, local people know Riverside and the good work we do. Nonetheless, the question remains, how do we get better at reaching people with the love of God, as He has called us to do, amid the challenges?

Riverside has more than 200 members, and around 220 people attend our Sunday morning service. Our congregation is a healthy mix of young people, families and older people, some of whom have retired. The church is more diverse than it has ever been, with people from different denominational backgrounds gathering regularly for fellowship, worship, prayer and activism. But I recognised the need for a review of our vision and strategy, not least because with a sizeable, diverse congregation, there’s also diversity in how members believe things should be done to achieve our shared objectives. 

Thus, in February last year we as a church asked ourselves: what are our vision and values? Through a prayerful process, we agreed that we seek to be an intentional community of grace by worshipping, praying, caring, sharing Jesus, and going deeper with God. This has become our statement, and since last year the leadership team and I have kept these themes at the heart of prayer and teaching in the church.

"One hundred people have signed up to the course – that’s eight groups of around 12 people."

During the church’s much-needed period of revaluation and reflection, I heard Fred Drummond, director of prayer and Scotland at the Evangelical Alliance, speaking about What kind of church? (WKOC?) at Refuel, a summer festival organised by Filling Station Scotland. I had a conversation with Fred following his presentation and invited him to visit Riverside. At a prayer breakfast for local church leaders, which comprised praise and worship and teaching, Fred spoke about the small group course. Coupled with a preview of the programme, I knew that this resource would complement the strategic thinking and vision casting that we had already begun and help us, as a church, work through some of the challenges – individual, local and national.

Clearly, members of the congregation thought so too. One hundred people have signed up to the course – that’s eight groups of around 12 people. At the time of writing, and we’re about halfway through, the feedback has been very positive. The material is helping us to take another step in our journey in being more intentional about sharing Jesus. Within the small groups, people are being transparent and honest, sharing their struggles. Those who are usually quiet are taking part, coming out of their shell. People are genuinely enthusiastic. WKOC? has gone down much better than other resources we’ve used in the past. We have started to see a real shift in culture and behaviour.

Keen for the whole church to benefit from the material, we deliver a Sunday morning sermon on each theme. The second session in the course, for example, is entitled Encounter and Engagement’, and Fred explores how activism flows from our abandonment to God. We unpicked this during the main service, so that everyone is fed’; and this also gave the small groups a foundation to go off in the evening and explore the theme further amongst themselves. The way we are running the course is working. The material is both reassuring and challenging. It’s helping people to push the boundaries of their perception of mission and have confidence in sharing the gospel.

And this what we hope to achieve through WKOC?: we want to emphasise the practice of sharing Jesus and help people to think missionally. In my view, mission is not a distinct activity in itself, but it is something that cuts across everything that we do as Christians. Through the course, and the other things we as a church are doing, we are broadening and deepening people’s perception of mission. Fred talks in the WKOC? videos and material about changing a nation. He talks in big terms – the bigger picture – and rightly so. But the principles apply to our local communities too; and our local communities make up the nation. 

So, how do we get to the stage where we think: what do I need to do to be a blessing to the people I work with, live with, attend the gym with? In the midst of a culture where people are desperate for community and meaning, and many do not believe that the church has the answer, I’m striving for a church that is enthused to encounter God, perhaps in new ways, and empowered to raise up and share Jesus as we experience a renewed confidence in our own story.

What kind of church? is a six-week small group course that has been developed by the Evangelical Alliance Scotland in response to the UK church’s need for support when addressing topics such as the future of the church, identity and approaches to discipleship. Contact scotland@​eauk.​org to find out more.